Up until now, there has been an unsteady and unsure brand of peace at Sarah Winchester’s ever-evolving house of penance. While it employs nothing but murderers and criminals, there has been a sense of order and a willingness to atone for their many, unnamed sins. This week’s House of Penance #5 sees the inevitable demise of that calm, and it feels as though the house — and by extension, we as readers — are along for the descent into whatever madness Peter Tomasi has up his sleeve.
The issue begins with the return of Sarah’s sister, and a representative from the Winchester company. There is a snooping, prying nature to Mary that is revealed this issue, suggesting that while she isn’t as bad as the criminals within Sarah’s house, she’s certainly no saint. In fact, one easily infer she’s somewhat delighted by her sister’s crumbling mental state.
As asylum workers attempt to drag Sarah from the house, we finally see a little more by way of explanation for the den of despots she has surrounded herself with. As Thomas Winchester promises pay in the absence of Sarah’s employment, several workers reveal that they’re not in this for the money; they are after whatever salvation their work has promised them. It’s a powerful moment in an issue filled with them. But, none of them make a move to save Sarah, except Warren Peck, who may have also started the downfall of the illusion of peace.
This issue is the heaviest, by way of exposition, as we finally learn more about Sarah and Warren. Everything we assumed about Warren is revealed to be correct: he was a killer who started in the army and continued because he was good at it. He is the quintessential “tortured man with a past” character that is so very prevalent in many Westerns. It’s a little disappointing to see him distilled down into this archetype, complete with female savior/ward archetype in Sarah. Sarah, however, manages to stretch the confines of that trope, a little, by focusing more on her own lust for money and prestige. That is to say, she goes beyond that of the good-hearted savior, and is full of her own torment and guilt. However, it’s hard to not notice that while she considers herself guilty by association, she, herself, does not directly have blood on her hands. Which, of course, goes back to the “good woman” trope.
The supposed blood curse under which Sarah believes she suffers is also explained, in excruciating detail, which I’m not sure I particularly enjoy. She did, in fact, visit a medium — which is very apropos for the time, as opposed to the standard “witch” that people love to insert into 1800s stories, so big kudos there — who lays out her very plan for her. The problem with this is that I rather liked thinking that her house of the banging hammers was a product of her own fractured psyche. It feels a little cheapened to have her entire program laid out for her by a medium. While she is still clearly mentally ill, it implies that she was only following the guidance that she had at her disposal.
As the mercy shown to Peck — and, indeed, perhaps the budding relationship between him and Sarah — makes its way through the house, whatever peace and tolerance shown before has fractured. Riots that were always lingering in corners and violence hidden behind hammering erupts to the surface, both figuratively and literally. It’s hard to tell, from the last panel, whether or not the events are actually occurring, or just a vision from Sarah’s deranged mind. I have a feeling it’s more the former, as this tale continues to root itself in reality.